In Search of Truth and Love

A Review of Dan Leach’s Dead Mediums: Stories

By Jon Sokol

If you haven’t noticed lately, we seem to be experiencing a bit of a resurgence of the Southern literary short story. In what appears to be utter defiance against the novel-centric publishing industry, a new crop of writers is delivering significant contributions to what was, and in many literary circles still is, considered a dying art form. Perhaps it is simply a new generation building on the foundations laid by stalwarts such as Larry Brown, George Singleton, and William Gay. Or could it be that we are seeing the inexorable evolution of uniquely fresh takes on stories with a sense of place that examine truths, if not universal then certainly Southern.

One of these new voices belongs to Dan Leach, a writer and teacher from South Carolina, who has received praise from the likes of Ron Rash, T. Geronimo Johnson, Scott Gould and the aforementioned Mr. Singleton. In 2017, Leach released his debut short story collection, Floods and Fires. More recently, his follow up collection Dead Mediums hit the market late last year and should firmly establish him as an authentic representative of the new wave of Southern short fiction writers.

The stories in Dead Mediums are rife with relatable everyday characters who are consumed with internal conflicts, many of which border on the parasitic, threatening to rot the hapless hosts from the inside out. In the page-turning “A Forest Dark and Deep,” a family man’s chance encounter with a familiar stranger reawakens recollections of his secret past involving an elaborate and humiliatingly erotic revenge scheme concocted by his former wife. As he reflects, the man remembers reading fairy tales as a child where the characters lives would change forever after merely walking through a door or entering a forest, by making a simple decision that would forever change the world around them. And he wonders, “What if, unlike the old stories, the door you pass through is one that closes behind you? What if, in reality, even if you want to return home, there comes a time when the door is locked and return is impossible?”

The “what if” scenario is a common technique used by writers of gritty realism, and Leach incorporates it skillfully in his stories. What if grief is taken to such an extreme that it completely tears apart relationships or even threatens to destroy the affected person. What if a character is placed in a seemingly impossible situation of their own making that continues to compound until the point of no return? What if you found out that everything you knew to be true was a sham? What if (what if!) these stories are not as outlandish as they at first seem?

Some of Leach’s stories in this collection are coming of age tales that flat out refuse to give a moral at the end, instead leaving the reader with just enough room to contemplate their own values and beliefs. In “Brother Bill Leaves the Narrow Path,” a young man enters college and begins to reject his ultra-religious upbringing only to find that he is perilously caught between two worlds, neither of which promise him solace. The parable-like “Lockjaw,” a story about two kids who attempt to rob a homeless man, is perhaps the closest Leach gets to moralizing as he ridicules toxic masculinity and phony machismo. But then he dares the reader to think of how they, as full-grown adults, would react any differently from the terror the kids feel.

Leach doesn’t just scratch the surface of real-world complications and life struggles in his stories; he opens up the flesh with a scalpel and digs around until he finds the source of pain. He is particularly adept at exploring the anxiety of change. From tackling the inexplicable weirdness of growing older (weight gain, baldness, and mysterious body hair) in the magical realism of “Fixers” to dealing with crippling grief in “Five Stages of Hunger,” Leach homes in on our fears and our angst and shows us how our responses to adversity can have lasting effects on ourselves and those we love. 

Dan Leach’s Dead Mediums is at times hilarious, often gritty, and always honest. His stories explore the search for meaning in the new-New South and what it is like growing up in an environment that does very little to prepare us for adulthood. He boldly asks the question, what happens when the youthful “privileged hick with answers for everything” is faced with impossible situations from a world completely at odds with what he was taught to expect? Leach asks us to consider the source of our agony and look deep in those uncomfortable places for that which is “holy with truth and love.”

Jon Sokol

Jon Sokol is a writer, forester, traveler, and book reviewer. He lives in Northeast Georgia with his wife, Karen. He mostly writes fiction often drifting toward southern gothic and his fascination with all things peculiar. Jon’s short stories and essays have appeared in the James Dickey Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Southern Literary Review, Gutwrench Journal, Reckon Review, Cowboy Jamboree, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and other journals and anthologies. In 2021, he graduated from Reinhardt University with an MFA in Creative Writing. Jon can be found online at and @JonSokolWriter on Twitter.